Attorney tells jury at start of trial in Brooklyn federal tribunal that Keith Raniere took advantage of them emotionally and sexually
The former self-help guru Keith Raniere was a ” predator” who preyed on young woman, including a 15 -year-old girl, and turned them into sex slaves as part of a cult-like organization, a “prosecutors ” told a jury at the start of his trial in New York on Tuesday.
” The defendant took advantage of them emotionally and sexually ,” the deputy US attorney Tanya Hajjar said in US district court in Brooklyn.
” He sold himself as the smartest, most ethical person in the world … He compared himself to Einstein and to Gandhi .”
Far from being a guru, attorneys allege, Raniereused” dishonor and humiliation to break people down” and exploited his adherents trust for” sexuality, power and oversight matters “.
Raniere, who is 58 and is known to followers as “Vanguard”, is accused of recruiting women to join his group, Nxivm, and then exercising total control over them- forcing them to have sex with him, curtailing their diets and even having them branded with his initials.
” No one could challenge his authority ,” Hajjar told jurors as Raniere listened from the defense table, wearing a blue shirt and gray sweater with his formerly shoulder-length hair cut short.
Raniere has pleaded not guilty to charges of sex trafficking, child pornography and other crimes. Some of his alleged ” slaves”, as well as members of his inner circle who pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors, are expected to testify over the course of the trial, which could last up to six weeks.
While prosecutors have not said who will take the witness stand, the former Smallville star Allison Mack and Seagram liquor heiress Clare Bronfman have already pleaded guilty to playing supporting roles in the strategy, as well as three other women accused of involvement in Raniere’s alleged crimes.
Prosecutors said on Tuesday that Raniere’s victims included three Mexican sisters, one of whom, named Camilla, was only 15. The government plans to introduce explicit photographs of the youngest sister confiscated from Raniere’s computer as evidence.
Nxivm( pronounced nexium ), which started under another name in 1998 and is was based in Albany, New York, and at one time operated numerous self-improvement centres across North and Central America.
In 2015, prosecutors say, Raniere established a sorority within Nxivm, known as DOS, an acronym for a Latin phrase that approximately entails” master of the obedient female companions “.
The subgroup included “slaves” who were expected to obey ” masters” in a pyramid-like structure, with Raniere standing alone at the top as the only man.
The slaves were required to submit ” collateral” to win adoption that could then be used as blackmail material: nude photos, rights to their financial assets or injury information about friends and relatives, prosecutors said.
Raniere was flanked by four attorneys as attorneys unveiled one of the pieces of proof in the case- a Mexican family who’d come to live at Nxivm’s headquarters in upstate New York.
The court heard that Raniere had offered to tutor the family’s three daughters but had instead forced them into sexual relationships. One of the daughters, known as” Virgin Camilla” was 15 when Raniere, then 45, began a relationship. The court heard he’d take photographs of her private parts and maintained them as “souvenirs.”
” The photos didn’t merely serve his sexual needs, he utilized them to blackmail ,” Hajjar told the court. The Mexican girls were then recruited into DOS, where Raniere was able to control their schedules and diet.
Women, including many young actresses, who’d joined Nxivm for self-empowerment, were instead coerced into pledging a” lifetime commitment and obedience” to Raniere, who kept them in line by demand “collateral” in the form of explicit photographs, attorneys said.
” They believed they joining a women’s empowerment group that would stimulate them stronger and more successful ,” Hajjar told the court. Instead they were turned into” DOS slaves” who were forced to pledge sexual obedience to Raniere. When some were later branded with a symbol, they didn’t not know they were being branded with Raniere’s initials.
In the defence’s opening statements, the lawyer Marc Agnifilo told the court he’d ask jurors to look beyond the” labels and lingo” of self-help and to understand that Raniere’s teaching was liberating for many.
Agnifilo said 17,000 people took Nxivm self-improvement courses since 2003 when it was founded and many reported” they’d got a lot out of it .” If Raniere had been hard on some of his followers it was because” that’s what they wanted .”
The first witness in the case, named “Sylvie”, described how Bronfman recruited her to the group at age 18. She said she initially joined the group because she believed she could become a better showjumper.
Only later was she groomed into Raniere’s inner sanctum of female slaves, she said, describing how she posed nude for a photo in 2015 at the behest of her female” slave master” Monica Duran.
” Your first assignment is to seduce Keith Raniere ,” she was told.
Raniere is the lone defendant in the case. In the past several weeks, five senior members of the working group altered their pleas to guilty after prosecutors added child exploitation charges against earlier this year based on evidence Raniere had allegedly had sex with a 15 -year-old girl.
Members, some of whom have claimed they were blackmailed to participate with nude photos, include Lauren Salzman, a key Nxivm executive who confessed in her guilty plea to holding a Mexican woman hostage for two years, and Bronfman, who tapped her fortune to bankroll Nxivm. Bronfman reached a deal with attorneys last month.
Another potential witness is India Oxenberg, the daughter of Catherine Oxenberg of “Dynasty” fame. Before the trial got underway, Catherine Oxenberg called on Raniere to change his plea.
” My one reservation about the trial is that these victims are going to have testify and it is going to be terribly traumatic for them ,” she said.” If Keith had any decency, he would plead out .”
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